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  1. Bars & Breweries

Bar review: A trip to Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg is an immersive experience

EVE EDELHEIT | Times Bartender Lucien Chalfoun makes a cocktail at Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg on Saturday, August 4, 2018. Saigon Blonde is a new high-concept bar with a Vietnam War-era theme, design details and exotic cocktails.
Published Aug. 20, 2018

The space at 265 Central Ave. in downtown St. Petersburg has always seemed out of place. Surrounded by a cigar lounge, restaurants and cocktail bars, its most recent dance-club incarnations never quite meshed with the block's entertainment scene.

So what better successor than a bar so thematically ambitious that fitting into the neighborhood isn't even a consideration?

That bar — the newly opened Saigon Blonde — is already one of the most exciting concepts I've experienced in the Tampa Bay area. It would be a disservice not to pass along the word now, even if there are some kinks to be ironed out.

Saigon Blonde's exterior — a cutaway walkup bar and sidewalk tables with large umbrellas — doesn't betray the visual excitement that awaits inside. If the designers of the queues for theme-park rides worked on a bar, it might look like Saigon Blonde. Its tall double doors lead into a space drenched in color and outfitted with vintage furniture, paper lanterns and reproductions of Vietnam War propaganda posters as wall art. There are detailed murals and Pacific Rim props, from a hanging crocodile to a shark-bitten surfboard and an antique Pachinko machine. No corner is left without an interesting design detail, and the theme is applied so thickly that it transcends kitsch to become an almost immersive experience.

Saigon Blonde is loosely divided into four spaces, each boasting its own unique vibe. Viewing the interior as a whole, there's almost too much to take in. Split it into sections and, wow, it works.

The first has a Polynesian vibe, with a bar that features tiki statues whose eyes and mouths flicker with lights, as if flames burned from within. The ceiling is bamboo and the floor is lined with colorful ceramic tile. Most cocktail spots stock fresh fruit on the bartop; this one has fresh coconuts.

Beyond this area is a spacious lounge outfitted with booths, low tables and wicker peacock chairs. When Saigon Blonde eventually adds food to the menu — rumor has it that a partnership with nearby La V may be in the works — this is probably where customers will dine.

Next up is the expat bar, dimly lit and canopied by an old airplane wing, with hammered copper tables and ammunition belts draped from camo-colored room dividers. It's dark and slightly claustrophobic — a stark departure from the other rooms. The effect is so on-point that you can almost feel the jungle humidity.

Above this bar is a small upstairs loft that was previously used as a DJ booth. Now it's a dark and semiprivate balcony overlooking the colorful interior.

I haven't even mentioned the drinks. Aside from an outstanding spirits selection, Saigon Blonde also makes fairly inventive cocktails.

The menu appears to be an area in transition, as the bar figures out what works.

An example of something that didn't: cocktails served in coconut half-shells (logistically challenging). Something that did: the Ring of Fire, made with the Street Pumas blended scotch, Rhum Clément Créole Shrubb, Joto Junmai Nigori sake, simple syrup, bitters, house-made "hellfire water" and Korean chili-thread garnish.

Saigon Blonde's appeal to exoticism may turn off those who see it as a romanticization of a dark time in American and Vietnamese history, but when viewed with a broader lens, it's a fantastic interpretation of a (mostly) imagined era, astonishingly lush with color and design. It may or may not be your thing, but a visit is mandatory. You need to see this one.

Contact Justin Grant at jg@saintbeat.com. Follow @WordsWithJG.

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